Big Island Beef Empanadas with Raisins and Green Olives
Looking for a worthy and creative use for that beautiful package of local, grass-fed beef from Kōkua Market? Here it is! I scoured the internet so you don’t have to, and found the perfect recipe to showcase this beef and make a small package feed many: baked Argentinian beef empanadas with raisins and green olives, served with mizuna, apple, and fennel salad. It really blew my mind, or I wouldn't be writing such a long-winded post about it (or a post at all-- this will be my very first), so be sure to try it if you're so inclined! Below, I’ve linked to the recipe(s) I used and provided my personal notes and tips to guide you to ~empanada euphoria~.
Making the filling:
First, I made the filling using half of this recipe, since I didn’t think I’d need 36 empanadas to feed two people (although, I’m missing them already, so maybe I should’ve). For half the recipe, I used 2/3 of a 1 lb package of Big Island grass-fed beef from the frozen section of Kōkua. (The other 1/3 was a perfect portion for an ong choy beef stir-fry for two.)
As an important aside, it’s imperative to use fresh spices here (and always, really), because spices lose their flavor over time, and probably more quickly than you think. It's best to buy spices in small quantities and have a higher turnover than to buy a whole bottle and keep it until it taste like dust. Take advantage of Kōkua’s bulk spice section if you need re-ups on your sweet paprika, dried oregano, cumin, and cayenne pepper for this recipe. Whole spices last longest, such as cumin seeds (up to a year for best quality) and quickly (as in ~6 months) lose their flavor in ground form. Always buy what you can whole! Black pepper, for instance, loses its delicate aromas in a matter of hours after grinding, which is why most recipes call for freshly ground black pepper. You can also put spices in the fridge or freezer (esp. those of the red pepper variety, like paprika and chili powder) for better freshness and color, but at least store them in a cool, dark place. Dried herbs especially lose their flavor when exposed to light. For this recipe, I ground my cumin fresh with a spice grinder (same thing as a small electric coffee grinder), or you could use a mortar and pestle. Cayenne and sweet paprika are much more available in ground form, so it’s best to buy them in small amounts and re-up when you’re low. I’m a big spice aficionado, which all started with a bag of fresh sweet paprika from a bulk bin— it completely changed what I thought about the spice when I used in on my fried eggs and inadvertently bloomed it in the oil to reveal its magic subtle essence. It’s not just decorative red dust for your deviled eggs, who knew!
So, make the filling according to the recipe using your fresh spices, making sure to leave plenty of time for it to chill in the fridge (3 hours). I didn’t read that part before attempting the recipe, and had to quickly chill it, but it turned out just fine after I stuck it in the freezer for 30 min. The recipe calls for low-sodium chicken broth, and you should abide; if you use a salted chicken broth here, the filling may end up too salty after reducing the liquid. That being said, don’t go too easy on the salt that you add; many professionals give the advice that home cooks are too light on the salt, and adding just a little more could turn a dish from okay to awesome. If you’re not sure, take a little spoonful of the filling and sprinkle a little salt on, and taste again. If it’s better, add more salt to the dish. Try not to eat tons of the filling when you taste for seasoning, as I did. Also think about the size of your salt: if it’s very coarse, it may not all be dissolved into the filling when you taste it, and you could end up over-salting the dish. It’s best to use fine sea salt or kosher salt here, stir completely, and let it dissolve before tasting to avoid that problem.
Making/buying the dough:
Now, on the wrappers! You won’t find the Goya brand empanada wrappers that the recipe calls for (or any brand for that matter) in most stores (I checked Kōkua, Safeway, and Times), however, there is a sweet little South American grocer on Beretania St. called Mercado de la Raza that carries another brand. I called them and they said they get Goya shipments infrequently (and have one coming in two weeks from this posting), but their customers prefer La Salteña, which they carry in their frozen section, with two varieties (one for baking and one for frying). This is great news and I’ll use them next time I make these, but since I didn’t think to call them before I made this, I made my own dough with this recipe. If you want to go through the trouble of making your own, I can vouch for its efficacy, or use your favorite pastry recipe. Skip the next paragraph if you've bought some wrappers.
Again, keep in mind that this recipe requires a chilling time of 1 hour. Some reviewers of the recipe said it was too salty, but I used salted butter so omitted the added salt, so I’m not sure on that count, but you could do as I did or cut down on the salt a little. I cut the dough into 12 equal pieces and rolled out each into a 5-inch round, but I do think it would have been easier to roll out the entire amount and cut 5-inch rounds from it using a thin-edged bowl or a biscuit cutter as some commenters did. I was worried about the unevenness of mine, but it didn't affect their end look much.
Forming the empanadas:
When forming the empanada, put ~ 2 Tbsp of filling in the center, add two green olive halves, then take two sides together and carefully fold in half and pinch the edges together. You can wet the edges facing each other to facilitate sticking, too. Then, it’s your choice whether to crimp the edges using a fork, or to go for the slightly more complicated but beautiful “braided” edge. I tried it both ways and though the braided way took a little more time, it turned out much more beautiful and got easier after a few times. I found that by far the most helpful tutorial on this was this video. Plus, it shows you that you can also use a pot lid to cut out your rounds! I didn’t have a small enough one to try this but it looks very effective. This method gave me 12 nice sized empanadas with plenty filling left over that I froze for later (I’ll try the Mercado de la Raza wrappers with the rest and let you know how they compare). Don’t worry if they’re a little ugly— I was feeling self-conscious about mine before I brushed each with a little of a beaten egg for better browning, and that smoothed away some of the rough edges, and they puffed up in the oven and looked much prettier when they were done. They all fit on one baking sheet for me, and I baked them in the upper third of my oven at 400ºF for about 25 min. All ovens are different, though, so take them out when golden brown and they look right to you, then cool on a rack for 5 minutes. Then, voila!
Since these are rich and meaty, a light and zippy salad is a nice complement. I used a bunch of mizuna lettuce (but baby arugula would be great too— anything with a mildly bitter and mustardy flavor), tossed with very thinly sliced (use a mandoline if you have one) fennel bulb and apple, with some fennel fronds, and squeezed a good amount of lemon over the top and drizzled it with olive oil. I found local fennel at Kōkua, too! This salad was the perfect accompaniment— light, tangy, mustardy, and fresh to counter the spicy, beefy, rich, flaky, empanadas.
Let me know if you try this recipe, and if you achieve empanada nirvana as well or have any recipe notes to share!
Aloha from your friendly neighborhood board member,
(Chocolate buckwheat cake also pictured. I don’t go all out every night, but this was my SO’s birthday dinner, so I surprised him with this spread!)